In a perfect basketball season, general managers sleep peacefully through the night. There’s no sense of urgency to upgrade rosters, or disgruntled players rattling the cage, or bloated player contracts that have yet to run their course, or “missing pieces” needing to be found.
Basically, no need for a trade deadline. (For the record, there still is one and it's Feb. 6 at 3 p.m. ET.)
Of course, that’s not how it works -- in this or any other NBA season. Part of the challenge (and even the fun) of navigating through the 82-game grind is reaching a stage where a team can improve itself, for the short or long term, through deal-making. The first half of the season dictates this: Is your team progressing as planned? Or is it hopelessly stalled? Is a player on your roster worth more to you on another team?
Maybe your team suddenly finds itself in the thick of the playoff chase and only needs a little extra help to solidify its place. That means it’s time to buy at the deadline. Or perhaps, the flip side: Your team is faltering and it’s time to bail and sell, sell, sell.
Some trade deadlines are busier than others, and there’s really no way to project or predict the amount of activity in the days leading up to when the bullhorn sounds. It just … happens. Which brings us to February 2020.
What makes this deadline a bit different than those in the recent past is free agency timing. This summer, there will be fewer "A-list" players on the market, especially compared to last summer, when the earth shook. Under normal circumstances, teams would rather wait until summer to improve themselves instead of using the trade deadline. Therefore, with that significant pipeline all but closed this July, this trade deadline looms larger.
But that doesn’t mean there will be a hike in activity. If fewer players are being shopped, fewer deals will be made. It’s that simple.
Here's a look at the most likely buyers and sellers -- 11 teams total -- along with the players who might want the moving companies on speed dial.
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If the deadline passes and the Cavaliers remain untouched, something went seriously wrong. No team is begging to be parceled off more than the Cavs, who lead the league in salty veterans asking (privately, of course) to be traded. First-year coach John Beilein has been under siege, dealing with a deadly combination of losing and players who don’t see a future on a team committed to rebuilding. And so, who’s going to be tossed overboard: Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson? Or both?
The Cavs got a jump on the process by shipping Jordan Clarkson to Utah last month, but Love and Thompson are better players and therefore will be a bit more challenging to move. It’s really about how much the Cavs are demanding -- or how little they’ll settle for -- in return.
Love is owed roughly $91 million the next three years. That’s a tough contract to swallow and demonstrates how weird it was for the Cavs to give him a four-year, $120 million deal after losing LeBron James 18 months ago. Either the Cavs must take back a slightly less-poisonous contract in a trade or essentially give Love away in a package for expiring contracts just to escape the contract. It’s not an ideal situation. Love’s hometown of Portland could be in the running, maybe for Hassan Whiteside’s expiring contract.
Thompson is having a solid season (12.4 points, 10.3 rebounds) and his contract is expiring. Still, how many teams will give Cleveland anything of value for a three-month rental?
As a surprise contender in the West and with Luka Doncic in the Kia MVP running, the Mavs could -- and maybe should -- turn into buyers and make an honest run at it. Anything can happen in the playoffs, if you’re prepared to take advantage. While everyone seems ready to crown a Los Angeles team in the West, the Mavericks would be well-positioned to become a spoiler if they add another piece and the Lakers or Clippers stumble.
Might the Mavericks sacrifice a protected first-rounder in a package that brings a rim protector next to Kristaps Porzingis, or a third scorer? Are they willing to gamble on Love or Thompson? It takes some rather bold thinking to roll the dice and add a piece mid-season. We’ll learn soon if the Mavericks are waiting for next season, or ready to seize today.
New Orleans Pelicans
They find themselves in a dicey situation with the pending return of Zion Williamson. Now within striking distance of the final playoff spot, the 2019 No. 1 overall pick could be the factor to push the Pelicans upward and onward in the second half. Or, because they’ll most likely limit his minutes and play the load management card, maybe Williamson won’t make much of a difference.
In that case, the Pelicans could shop JJ Redick and/or Jrue Holiday for future help and salary cap relief this summer. Both Redick and Holiday would be in demand with title contenders, especially Redick, given his team-friendly contract and 42% shooting from deep.
From the time they traded for Andre Iguodala and then told him not to bother showing up, the Grizzlies held a curious trade chip. That’s still the case, although you wonder how much market depreciation, if any, was suffered by Iguodala in the process.
There exist two schools of thought:
1. By not playing this season, Iguodala preserved his body and therefore will be fresh for a postseason run with whomever he plays.
2. By not playing this season, he’ll be rusty and at best serving in spot duty as a back-end rotation guy on a good team.
Last we saw him, Iguodala was fairly solid for the Warriors during The Finals. He’s a championship-tested veteran who knows his way around the floor in the postseason. He’s all but guaranteed to be moved. Question is, for what? And where? A return to Denver might be possible.
Andre Drummond is somewhat prehistoric in today’s game. He’s a decent low-post big man in an era during which that species is all but extinct. Can he help someone, or merely get in the way? Also, where has he ever taken the Pistons?
Drummond remains the game’s best rebounder (NBA-best 15.9 rpg this season) and that counts for something even if the center position is being devalued in all but a few special cases.
He has a $28 million player option for next season, which also makes it tricky for the Pistons, because there’s no guarantee he’ll be anything more than a rental for someone. Truth be told, the Pistons would rather deal Blake Griffin. He's owed $74 million over the next two seasons, but his knees are betraying him and nobody’s taking that contract without sending something equally horrific back to Detroit.
New York Knicks
Julius Randle is averaging 18.7 points and 9.1 rebounds per game and his contract isn’t too lethal ($37 million the next two seasons), which makes him the best trade chip for the Knicks.
Here’s another option: Should the Knicks consider cutting their losses with Kevin Knox? Yes, he’s only 20 and was the No. 9 pick in the 2018 draft. But he hasn’t improved much and, if anything, his confidence and role are suffering. He’s still on his rookie contract and another team with a solid development program could make the Knicks a reasonable offer. Is it too soon to bail on a young-but-stalled talent? The Knicks have nothing to lose here either way.
Once the season began, the Hornets went all-in on their youth movement and their high-priced and low-producing veterans began collecting dust. Therefore, the phone lines are open in Charlotte. Problem is, there’s not much of a market for someone such as Nicolas Batum and the $27.1 million he’ll make next season.
But Michael-Kidd Gilchrist and Marvin Williams are on expiring deals and could generate buzz. Williams is a low-maintenance vet who’s great in the locker room, is a career 36.3% 3-point shooter and may be a good fit in certain rotations. Additionally, big man Cody Zeller is one of the few remaining vets who hasn’t been tossed aside. In the right situation, Zeller -- who has one year at $15 million left on his deal -- could be a rotational front-line player on a contender.
They made not one, but two head-scratching additions last summer: Trevor Ariza and Dewayne Dedmon. To almost no one’s surprise, neither is seeing significant minutes and Dedmon has already expressed public frustration. It makes you wonder what the Kings were thinking five months ago.
Dedmon will be tough to move, in terms of getting anything of value, because he’s an offensively challenged big man who’s not a deluxe rebounder and is owed roughly $26 million the next two seasons. Ariza has one year left at $12.8 million (which is not fully guaranteed), and long valued for his defense and 3-point shooting. But how much is left in the tank of the 16-year veteran?
Oklahoma City Thunder
Let’s address the elephant in the room: Chris Paul is all but guaranteed to stay in OKC at least another season. His contract is a deal-breaker (and a back-breaker for anyone trying to lift it) as he'll get $85.5 million over the next two seasons. Contending teams are usually strapped for cash and unwilling to part with a major piece to surrender in a trade for Paul unless that piece is a flawed asset. His final season is a player option, but raise your hand if you believe Paul will pass on taking $44 million at age 36. In a more realistic scenario, Paul will play out his deal in OKC and then go ring-chasing, maybe in L.A. with LeBron James.
Meanwhile, the Thunder can dangle Danilo Gallinari, a still-functional shooter who’s on an expiring deal. Or they could see what Steven Adams will bring. Or they can stay put as they’re in the West playoff chase these days. They could enjoy their unexpectedly good run with Paul in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year here without Russell Westbrook and Paul George.
Miami can actually qualify as both buyers and sellers by seeing what they can get for Dion Waiters and Justise Winslow, two players whose futures in Miami are questionable.
Waiters hasn’t been a factor since signing a contract extension three summers ago and lately has caused major headaches for the franchise with his questionable behavior. He’s been suspended three times, and in any event, his position and role are being gobbled up by hungry young players. Of course, because of the baggage, the market for Waiters is cool. Plus, he's owed $12.6 million next season.
Winslow remains a functional player, yet the swing position is populated by Jimmy Butler, Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro and Derrick Jones Jr., all of whom weigh heavier in the Heat’s resurgence. There also might be interest in Goran Dragic, who's on an expiring contract, if the Heat want to go that route.
Golden State Warriors
All indications are the Golden State Warriors will wait until summer to decide on D’Angelo Russell’s fate rather than deal him at the deadline, unless someone blows them away. By waiting, they can judge that trade market and will also know where they’ll select in the Draft lottery.
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